Fire and water are the king and queen of the West.
Too much or too little of either, and the delicate forces of nature become dangerously out of balance.
Elko County experienced major disruptions this year from both wildfires and flooding. As we look back over the top stories from 2017, the damage and close calls from these severe events made headlines several times.
The question is “Could we have handled them better?”
Wildfires and floods are preventable, to some degree, but prevention takes a little foresight and often a lot of money.
A judge will decide whether the City of Elko failed to prevent flood damage to Elko homes in February when the Humboldt River overflowed its banks. Several dozen residents, including Assemblyman John Ellison, filed a lawsuit in December claiming that floodgates designed to protect southside neighborhoods were either removed or not properly maintained.
The river that once snaked through town was straightened into a channel beside relocated railroad tracks in the late 1970s as part of a federal demonstration project called Project Lifesaver.
The river has seen heavy water volumes both before and after the project. According to the National Weather Service, the Humboldt topped its February 2017 level of 10.5 feet in 1962 and in 1983.
According to a Salt Lake City engineering firm hired by the city after the flood, the straightened river channel was three feet deeper when it was built than it was back in 1993 when a hydraulic model was developed by another engineering company.
While the report was inconclusive as to whether sedimentation was responsible for the difference, the report did state that the Project Lifesaver-era cross sections would have accommodated more flow than those measured in 1993. And it’s not a stretch to assume that sedimentation could have made the river channel even shallower in the nearly quarter-century since that study was done.
Even in homes that were protected by sandbags, flood water entered through toilets and other plumbing as sewers in the southside neighborhood backed up. In March, the city replaced manhole covers in the neighborhood with covers that do not have holes in them.
While water levels in the river normally drop or disappear completely in midsummer, this year the river channel did not dry out. Residents were thankful, at least, that a secondary round of flooding did not occur as higher mountain snow began melting in the spring.
Other Elko-area residents had close calls this year as wildfires raced through the surrounding landscape, but fortunately the damage to structures was minimal. We attribute this to the fast work of fire crews that did an outstanding job of controlling the flames despite strong or shifting wind patterns.
Still, as is the case with flooding, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The Bureau of Land Management this month announced it was planning major fuel break and fuel reduction projects designed to reduce widespread cheatgrass infestations in the West, which are responsible for increasingly severe rangeland fires.
“By restoring native habitat, invasive species that are helping to fuel these unnaturally large fires will be reduced or removed, making the rangelands more resistant to future wildfires,” stated a notice published Dec. 22 in the Federal Register.
An Associated Press report quoted a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who said fuel breaks are a paradox because they involve intentionally fragmenting the landscape to avoid the even worse fragmentation that occurs with wildfires.
“Fires, especially large fires, are so unambiguously damaging to wildlife habitat in general — that is the motivating factor for getting these fuel breaks out,” Matt Germino said. “At this point, it’s really difficult to predict which animal species will benefit and which ones won’t. Sometimes you have to just act in light of the uncertainty.”
The 2017 fire season provided ample evidence that drastic steps need to be taken to reduce the risk of wildfires, so it’s encouraging to see the Interior Department taking action.
Rural Nevada’s next flood and fire seasons are just around the corner. We hope that lessons learned from 2017 will be put to good use in the coming year.